The Pamunkey Native American tribe is one of two existing tribes in Virginia that were part of the Powhatan Confederacy. They inhabited the coastal tidewater of Virginia near Chesapeake Bay. The Pamunkey reservation is located on the site of some of its ancestral land on the Pamunkey River adjacent to King William County, Virginia. The Pamunkey tribe is significant to American history because of its early contact with colonial settlers and adaptations for self preservation through the centuries. Native Americans have occupied this part of the mid-Atlantic coast since pre-Columbian times.

Way of life

ubsistence and relationship to the land

The traditional Pamunkey way of life was subsistence living. They lived through a combination of fishing, trapping, hunting, and farming. The Pamunkey River was a main mode of transportation and food source. It also provided access to hunting grounds, other tribes, and a defensive view of local river traffic. Access to the river was crucial because Pamunkey villages were not permanent settlements. Because they did not use fertilizer, they moved their fields and homes about every ten years to allow land to lie fallow and recover from cultivation.

Land was considered to belong to the tribe as a whole. The chief and council would allot a parcel of cleared ground to a family head for life, and upon his death the parcel would generally go back to the tribe to be reallotted. [Pollard, John Garland (1894). "The Pamunkey Indians of Virginia", p. 17. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office.] Differences in how land was viewed and controlled was a major source of conflict with English colonists, who had a land ownership model.Fact|date=February 2007


Pamunkey structures were long and narrow, described by English colonists as “longhouses”. They were relatively simple structures made from curved saplings and covered with woven mats. Homes of families of higher status were also made of bark. By changing the strength of indoor fires and the amount of mats or bark, the Pamunkey could adapt the houses to many kinds of weather conditions and remain comfortable.Fact|date=February 2007


The tribe is governed by a weroance (Chief) and a tribal council composed of seven members, elected every four years. Fact|date=February 2007

An 1894 study of the Pamunkey reported, “The council names two candidates to be voted for. Those favoring the election of candidate number 1 must indicate their choice by depositing a grain of corn in the ballot-box at the schoolhouse, while those who favor the election of candidate number 2 must deposit a bean in the same place. The former or the latter candidate is declared chosen according as the grains of corn or the beans predominate.” [Pollard (1894), p. 16.]

The council passes tribal laws chiefly concerned with, but not limited to intermarriage (which affects rights of tribal membership), preventing slander, bad behavior, and controlling land use.Fact|date=February 2007 They do not use corporal punishment, incarceration, or chastisement.Fact|date=February 2007 Rather, punishments are by fines or banishment (usually after the third offense).Fact|date=February 2007


The Pamunkeys are part of the larger Algonquian family. This was composed of a number of tribes who spoke variations of the same language. Most of their language has been lost. By 1607 the Powhatan Confederacy was formed, of which the Pamunkey were the largest and most powerful tribe. [Hodge, Frederick Webb (1910). "Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico", Part 2, p. 198. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office.] Both Chief Powhatan and his famous daughter Pocahontas were Pamunkeys.

Initial contact with Europeans was around 1570. “And from [1570] on at ever briefer intervals until the first permanent English colony was established at Jamestown in 1607, the Powhatan Confederacy was visited and plagued by white men: Spanish, French, and English” (Barbour, 5). There were an estimated 14,000 members of the Confederacy at the time of English arrival.

The Pamunkeys were formally recognized by the outside world with treaties with King William III of England in the second half of the 17th century. Colonists of the first successful English settlements, based at Jamestown, had an ambivalent relationship with Virginia Native Americans. Chief Powhatan was close to Captain John Smith and initially dealt with the colony through him. If not for Chief Powhatan, the settlers at Jamestown would not have survived through the first winters. As the settlement expanded, the friendly nature of interactions steadily decreased.

Chief Powhatan’s half brother and successor, Opechancanough, launched attacks in 1622 and 1644 to try to expel the settlers from the area. The first, known as the Indian Massacre of 1622, destroyed settlements such as Henricus and Wolstenholme Towne and nearly wiped out the colony. [Swanton, John R. (1952, reprinted 2003). "The Indian Tribes of North America", p. 70. Genealogical Publishing Co. ISBN 0806317302.] Jamestown itself was spared due to a warning of the impending attack. After the capture and assassination of Opechancanough, the Powhatan Confederacy was disbanded.

The Virginia Colony continued to grow and encroach on Indian land, making it impossible for them to sustain their traditional practices. Many Pamunkeys were forced to work for the English or were enslaved. As the colonial settlement grew, so did their fear of Native Americans. This culminated in Bacon's Rebellion, which began in 1675 as the colonists and Royal Governor William Berkeley disagreed about the handling of conflicts with the Indians. During the subsequent reprisals for an incident in what is now Fairfax County, the Pamunkeys were among innocent tribes wrongfully targeted by the colonists. These themes of militancy and encroachment continued throughout much of American history. Although the tribe was divided in the 18th century, many Powhatan tribes including the Pamunkey, secretly kept their identity.

Primary impressions

, but from an English perspective. When comparing primary documents from the time of English arrival, it is apparent that initial contact was characterized by mutual cultural misunderstanding. Primary documentation characterizes the Virginia Indians through a series of paradoxes. It is apparent that there is great respect for Chief Powhatan but the other Indians are repeatedly called variations of devils and savages, such as “naked devils” or they were standing there “grim as devils”. There is a great fear and appreciation coupled with distrust and uneasiness. The following quotation from John Smith’s diary exemplifies this duality. “It pleased God, after a while, to send those people which were our mortal enemies to relieve us with victuals, as bread, corn fish, and flesh in great plenty, which was the setting up of our feeble men, otherwise we had all perished” (Southern, 35). Smith makes it apparent that without Chief Powhatan’s kindness the colony would have starved. However, Smith still considers Chief Powhatan’s people his enemies.

This general distrust from the English permeated throughout many tribes, but a sense of honor and morality is attached to the Pamunkey. “There custom is to take anything they can seize off; only the people of Pamunkey we have not found stealing, but what others can steal, their king receiveth” (83). Even though it is apparent that the Pamunkeys meant no harm until they were pushed to seek revenge, they were repeatedly wronged.

Chief Powhatan could not understand the English approach. "What it will avail you to take by force you may quickly have by love, or to destroy them that provide you food? What can you get by war, when we can hide our provisions and fly to the woods? Whereby you must famish by wronging us your friends. And why are you thus jealous of our loves seeing us unarmed, and both do, and are willing still to feed you, with that you cannot get but by our labors?" (Southern, 97). This question posed by Chief Powhatan was translated in Smith’s writings.

Powhatan could not understand why the British would want to taint relations with his tribe. They were providing Jamestown with food, since the colonists refused to work, and could not otherwise survive the winter. It is apparent that these Indians only went to war as a last resort. They did not understand why the only tactics of the British were force and domination.

Pamunkeys now

The Pamunkeys have been able to survive because of their remarkable ability to adapt as a tribe. In modern times they have changed their interpretation of living off the land, but still uphold the central value of subsistence living. They continue to hunt, trap, and fish on what is left of their reservation grounds. In order to supplement these activities, they have turned traditional tribal pottery into profit-generating ventures, while continuing to rely on their natural environment. The pottery is made from all-natural clay, including pulverized white shells used by their ancestors.

Also, the Pamunkey Indian Museum was built in 1979 to resemble a traditional Native American long house. Located on the reservation, it provides visitors with an innovative approach to the tribe's history throughout the years through artifacts, replicas, and stories. Their history is so rich that the Smithsonian Institution recently selected the Pamunkeys as one of 24 tribes to be featured in the National Museum of the American Indian.

ee also

*Queen Anne (Pamunkey chief)
*Virginia tribes

Further reading

*Southern, Ed. "The Jamestown Adventure: Accounts of the Virginia Colony, 1605-1614". North Carolina: John Blair, 2004
*Barbour, Phillip. "Pocahontas and Her World". Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1969.
*Hatfield, April Lee. "Atlantic VA: Intercolonial Relations in the Seventeenth Century". Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004.


External links

* [ Pamunkey Indian Museum]
* [ Pamunkey Tribe Homepage]

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